by Nadiah Mohajir
It happens to every parent: yesterday you were holding them in your arms, protecting them and their innocence. Yet, you quickly realize that even as young as 2 or 3, children are curious, intelligent little beings that are looking for answers about the way life works: including, of course, their bodies and how they came into the world. Like many of your peers, you are so. not. ready. The time has come for you to have “the talk” with them.
Some of you may want to start young and have conversations throughout childhood and adolescence, others may want to wait until the later elementary school years. Many of you want to have this conversation, but hesitate with embarrassment or confusion: is having an open, honest conversation about sex while still setting values or expectations possible? At HEART Women & Girls, we believe that it is, and hope to offer you some tips on how to begin this important conversation. Please do refer to our recent guide for Muslim parents on having these conversations with their kids.
Start Early. While most parents delay this conversation until just before puberty, it is crucial to begin these conversations as early as 3. There are many ways to have these conversations in age appropriate ways, so as to build off the knowledge as the child gets older.Ongoing, developmentally appropriate conversations have a few more advantages. For example, it normalizes topics related to sex and sexuality so that it is not seen as a shameful or embarrassing topic. Introducing these concepts throughout the elementary and adolescent years lays a foundation for lifelong critical decision-making and healthy relationships. And perhaps most importantly, as mentioned earlier, these conversations allow you to talk openly about your family’s values and expectations about sex and sexuality.
Keep the conversation going. The most important component of “the talk” for parents to remember is that it should be ongoing, throughout a child’s elementary and adolescent years. Though historically these conversations have been portrayed as being only a one-time lecture from parent to child, it is hard to imagine that one conversation will suffice. Even if you are well-prepared for this talk, one conversation cannot adequately equip a child with the information and skills they need for a lifelong set of experiences. Put another way, when children attend school, they learn academic subjects like math, science, and English, and as they grow older, the concepts build on each other and get more complicated, which ultimately provides them with a comprehensive understanding of the subject. In the same way, repeated, age-appropriate conversations about puberty and sex are crucial to give them information they need to fully process the big picture and figure out how they fit in it.
Encourage Questions. Giving kids permission to ask you questions openly and answering them honestly builds trust and creates a safe space for them to come to you in the future with questions as well.
Provide Information. Where can your child go for more information? Of course, he/she always has you to come to, but teaching your child to identify other trustworthy sources of information – both people in their lives as well as internet sources – is a very important skill to help them develop. They will then be able to ascertain the differences between legitimate websites and not so accurate websites, as well as will know which adults – in addition to you – they can seek help from should they need it.
Emphasize consent. Unfortunately, we live in a time when sexual violence is rampant. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 4 girls and 1 and 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18. There is no racial, ethnic, or religious community immune to sexual violence. It is crucial that you explore situations involving boundaries and consent, as they are useful skills to have when thinking about sexual violence and healthy relationships. This information can help lay the foundation for healthy relationships in the future, and can also prepare your child to be that resource for their friends and peers if they are ever bystanders in a situation.
Be honest about family values and expectations. Many parents have asked me if it’s possible to be sex positive while still letting their kids know what they expect from them regarding sex. In other words, is setting a framework or guidelines by which young people can abide by conflicting with sex positive, autonomous decision making? It is perfectly ok for parents to lay down their expectations, while acknowledging that their child is old enough to make his/her own choices.
So once the actual biology of sex and reproduction is explained, what does a conversation about how it all plays out in real life and family values look like? We offer just one approach below.
WHAT IS SEX?
Age 12 and under: Sex is an act between two consenting people. Consent means that both people have agreed to what is happening and can stop at any time they want. In Islam, most believe that sex is only permissible when those two people are married and it is considered an act of worship. Of course, there are many people—Muslim or not—who choose not to wait until marriage because the decision to have sex is different for everyone and requires both parties to think about what factors need to be present to move forward.
While sex can and should bring much pleasure, sex is also an act of great responsibility. People choose to have sex for many reasons, including: to express their love and desire for someone, to fulfill a physical need, or to have children. It is an act that makes you responsible for yourself and your partner.
Age 12 and older: Because it is a responsibility, you must be be prepared for sex. Preparing for sex often involves educating yourself on birth control and contraception options, knowing how to use them, engaging in open communication with your partner, and reflecting on and exploring your values, ideas, and desires before the heat of the moment. If you are not prepared, it may have an effect that you did not plan for. Physical consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Getting pregnant as a teen can make graduating high school and college more difficult. Whenever you decide to have sex, it is your right to have sex with contraception. No one should pressure you to have sex without it. Sex may also have social consequences such as tension in your relationship or friendships. Or it may have spiritual consequences such as guilt you may feel if your family doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.
Remember you also have a responsibility to always honor and respect your own boundaries as well as your partner’s. If you are not comfortable with a particular sexual act, or your partner is not comfortable with a particular sexual act , those feelings should be respected and honored. No means no, and it is your right to not have sex or engage in any other sexual activity if you do not want to.
I hope that you wait until you are [married, 21, an adult, in a committed relationship, enter expectation, if at any, here]. I know that there will be many times you will feel like not waiting, because romantic and sexual desires are natural and sex feels good and we live in a world where the pressure to have sex is overwhelming at times. So, I hope that you will wait too, but I also know you are a very thoughtful girl/boy who will make the best decision for you and your body.
If you found this article helpful, please do check out our publication: Let’s Talk about Sex a Guide for Muslim Parents on having the Talk with their Kids. The guide includes data, useful tips, and exercises that you can do with your child as you prepare them for this important part of life.